Bulls fall to Pacers, but show promise

Keep repeating: The games don’t count, the games don’t count, the games…

And so the Bulls Thursday recorded their second consecutive loss to open the 2016-17 NBA preseason, 115-108 to the Indiana Pacers. It really didn’t mean too much with Jimmy Butler sitting out the second half with just one shot for the game and Rajon Rondo, who was the Bulls’ star in the game, playing just six second half minutes and scoreless after 14 first half points.

Spencer Dinwiddie led the Bulls with 19 points, 11 in the fourth quarter. Robin Lopez and Tony Snell had 11 each and Dwyane Wade and Taj Gibson 10 each. Doug McDermott was three of six on threes; the rest of the team was three of 24.

The preseason exhibitions are more about individual performance than team results even if Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was disappointed about the team yiedling 115 points and being outrebounded 55-40.

“Overall, it was just too easy for them,” said Hoiberg. “Transition, obviously, was an issue as far as getting back. We needed to get to the glass; only ended with four offensive rebounds. And we still got exposed on the other end in transition. They got us on the glass, crushed us 55-40. Those were the two keys going into this game, getting back and rebounding the ball; hopefully we’ll be better Saturday (against Indiana in the United Center).”

The Pacers played their regulars longer and it essentially was a tie game through three quarters, 84-83 Indiana. The Bulls played a mish mash of nine reserves in the fourth quarter while the Pacers used veterans like Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson and Rodney Stuckey for long stretches of the fourth quarter. It seems new Pacers’ coach Nate McMillan is going for that preseason title.

The Pacers, meanwhile, are a neo-transition team, pushing the ball constantly with a goal, they say, of averaging 115 per game this season. Under previous coach Frank Vogel with center Roy Hibbert they usually tried to reach that within a week. It’s ironic for McMillan, who basically was fired in Portland for being too controlling and too much a slow down coach with talent that could play faster.

The Bulls’ starting group, though with Butler healthy and not much involved in a sort of rest game, basically did well against the Pacers’ offensive pressure after falling behind 19-10 to start. That was thanks to Rondo, who unveiled an impressive ability to get to the basket and score. Despite not shooting jump shots with defenders laying off, Rondo has an uncanny way to beat the defense and score. He generally chooses to facilitate, and he did that well, showing amazing timing the way he can hesitate and let teammates get into position for easier shots.

Rondo did that on consecutive plays late in the first half when he slowed up until Nikola Mirotic got in better position closer to the basket and made a pass for a slam dunk and then holding a few counts until Robin Lopez was deeper with an easier shot. Rondo followed that with a neat hidden ball behind the back move for another Lopez score and his only perimeter make, a short bank shot to give the Bulls a 67-65 halftime lead.

Rondo had 14 first half points, the only Bulls player scoring in double figures. He also was tied for the team lead in rebounds and assists.

The preseason also is about winning spots in the lineup and the rotation and it seemed like Gibson strengthened his claim to the starting power forward spot. Gibson is the only Bulls regular to have a positive plus/minus in the two games. Meanwhile, Mirotic again shot one of seven from the field, now two of 14 overall. Perhaps of greater concern was the Pacers putting him in pick and roll constantly to start when they went ahead by nine.

“A big thing with Niko is getting his confidence back,” said Hoiberg, who did say he liked Mirotic’s ball movement. “He’s going to be the first guy in the gym tomorrow, I can promise you that, working on his shot. It’s about getting the lid off the basket. Once he does that I’m confident Niko will be off and running. Sometimes that’s the way it is with shooters, playing with confidence and swagger and I think he’ll get that back soon.”

For his part, Mirotic, who played throughout the summer for Spain in the Olympics, said he’s just got to keep trying.

“I think the shots I’m taking are good shots, they are good decisions,” he said. “Obviously, I am not making them in the first two games. I am not worried. I’ve got to keep working, keep taking shots. My teammates, my coaches want me to take those shots. The first game the other night at home, maybe there was too much excitement. Two games in a row now, what is going on? The only way to get out is to take good shots. I’m two for 13, 14, something like that; first time in my life. Hopefully, next game will be better.”

Though Mirotic is generally confident, he seems to be rushing his shot, as if he feels forced to get up shots even with defenders coming at him. He hasn’t been pump faking like previous seasons, but hasn’t looked set and comfortable when shooting in games.

It might serve Mirotic well to lessen the pressure by having him support Gibson off the bench, though Gibson seems to be earning his spot. Dinwiddie also took advantage of the opportunity with Denzel Valentine out for approximately two weeks with a sprained ankle.

Dinwiddie had a big scoring fourth quarter, though of greater significance seemed to be his poise in running the offense. Dinwiddie looked confident. He’s not a distributor like Rondo and is more of a scoring point guard. But with his size and boldness, he was able to create space for his shots and get to the basket aggressively. He’s played the most consistently of the players trying to earn backup point guard minutes.

“I am learning a lot here, trying to take advantage of my opportunities,” said Dinwiddie, a 6-6 guard who split time the last two seasons with the Pistons and the D-league. “I may have played 10 good games in my career and three of them were against the Bulls. And now I’m here.”

Dinwiddie is showing notice should be taken.

The Bulls pulled into a 33-33 tie after one quarter on back to back swish three pointers from McDermott. Curiously, McDermott had a low percentage on catch-and-shoot threes last season even as he was among the league leaders in three-point percentage. He made all three catch-and-shoot attempts to start, but then missed three later off the dribble. He does seem more relaxed on the road, however. With the home crowd almost straining for his makes, he seems to almost aim at home. Last season, he shot 42.5 percent on threes at home and about 45 percent on the road. He looked more comfortable Thursday and finished with nine points and five rebounds and a plus-11 rating.

Though Wade had a quiet three of nine shooting for 10 points, his playmaking stood out. Wade on back to back plays late in the first half had a terrific pocket pass to a rolling Bobby Portis, first for foul shots and then a pick and roll for a dunk. Wade then faked his own pass on a pick and roll with Portis for his own driving score. They seemed to work well together. Though not nearly as brilliantly athletic, Wade is such a smart player now you can see where he easily can get to 20 points in a game. Portis also had some good moments and a team best plus-12, though mostly from that sequence with Wade playmaking and Jerian Grant playing off the ball.

The Bulls obviously gave up a lot of points, but the defense wasn’t awful. Indiana is committed to a fast pace and quick shots. So it was encouraging that the Bulls without much from Butler could remain even through three quarters as Paul George played 24 minutes through three. Stuckey led Indiana with 20 points, Glenn Robinson III had 17, Thaddeus Young 16 and Jefferson 15.

The Bulls also got a look at the debut of rookie second round pick Paul Zipser. He had seven points in 14 minutes while playing under control with a nice first step enabling him to get to the basket on a couple of drives. He seemed to prefer going left and then coming back to shoot right. Snell had his second straight double figure scoring game off the bench.

The Bulls had taken their biggest lead at 71-65 to start the second half on a Wade jumper and Wade steal leading to a Lopez jumper. Indiana then scored 11 straight with Jefferson shooting outside against Lopez. Gibson and Dinwiddie then kept the Bulls within one after three. The Bulls were trailing 96-95 with seven minutes left playing a group of Isaiah Canaan, McDermott, Portis, Dinwiddie and Zipser. Snell, Felicio and Grant then came in for McDermott, Portis and Canaan. The Pacers got threes from Stuckey and Teague, still playing veterans against several likely non rotation Bulls players. Indiana went ahead by 10 with just under three minutes left and kept most of the lead down the stretch.